Editor’s note: Today (May 5th) is Chris Brown’s birthday. This piece was one of the most popular in our history and we want to memorialize his birthday by reinforcing a message we believe in.
I’m sick and tired of people acting like it’s no big deal that Chris Brown will be performing at the Grammys.
I’m frustrated that the mainstream media is covering this story like it’s any comeback story, like an exiled prince’s return to a former glory, like this is another political timeline — as though some rich and powerful old white men in the music business have not just issued an enormous ‘f**k you’ to every woman who has been, is or will be on the receiving end of domestic violence.
We should be furious.
Why aren’t we?
A Long, Long Time Ago, or Three Years Ago, But Who’s Counting?
For those of you who are currently listening to ‘Look at Me Now’ and wondering what the big deal is, a quick recap: The night before the Grammys in 2009, Chris Brown got angry at his girlfriend, Rihanna, and he took it out on her face. She went to the hospital and then to the LAPD, where this photo was taken and promptly leaked to TMZ. (The LAPD issued a stern statement on the leak, threatening penalties “up to and including termination”. TMZ reportedly paid $62,500 for the photo.)
Both Rihanna and Brown had been scheduled to perform at the Grammys the following evening. Neither did.
Instead, Chris Brown turned himself into the LAPD at 7 pm, was booked on suspicion of criminal threats and was released on $50,000 bail.
Then the Internet exploded.
I was a full-time entertainment writer at the time, so I had a front-row seat to the action. This is what I expected: I expected a string of celebrities to comment on how horrific this situation was, how sad and angry they were for Rihanna, how domestic violence is unacceptable in any context, how as a nation we need to condemn this and condemn it loudly.
Instead, Hollywood went silent and, when they did speak, they teetered on the brink of defending Chris Brown.
Carrie Underwood: “I don’t think anybody actually knows what happened. I have no advice.”
Lindsay Lohan: “I have no comment on that. That’s not my relationship. I think they’re both great people.”
Nia Long: “I know both of them well. They’re young, and all we can do is pray for them at this point.”
Mary J. Blige: “They’re both young and beautiful people, and that’s it.”
Jay-Z, one of Rihanna’s mentors, spoke up: “You have to have compassion for others. Just imagine it being your sister or mom and then think about how we should talk about that. I just think we should all support her.”
In a sane world, Jay-Z’s statement would sound insane. Why would he have to remind his fans to support Rihanna after what happened is that she got hit in the face?
Jay-Z issued that statement because the Internet was, in early February 2009, engaged in a very serious conversation about whether or not all of this was Rihanna’s fault. In fact, large segments of the Internet had devoted themselves to making Rihanna the scapegoat for any woman who ever had the gall to do something worth getting hit, and then the cloying self-esteem to go to the cops about it. Bloggers and their commentators flocked to Chris Brown’s defense in droves. It was a full-blown tearing-down of female self-worth, an assault on any progress women have made in this country in the past 200 years, and the mainstream media ignored it.
It horrified me. It still does.
Later in February, a photo of Brown riding a jet ski in Miami hit the Internet, and singer Usher was caught on video commenting on it: “I’m a little disappointed in this photo,” Usher says in the video. “After the other photo [of Rihanna's bruised face]? C’mon, Chris. Have a little bit of remorse, man. The man’s on jet skis? Like, just relaxing in Miami?”
The backlash was so severe that Usher was later forced to publicly apologize.
“I apologize on behalf of myself and my friends if anyone was offended,” he said. “The intentions were not to pass judgment and we meant no harm. I respect and wish the best for all parties involved.”
The message we sent to young women was unmistakable: You are powerless. You are worthless. You will be a victim, and that will be okay with us.